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Jathan Sadowski

In his research on the future of “smart cities” – cities populated by networked devices and processes making up an “internet of things” – HSD PhD candidate Jathan Sadowski pointedly skirts the boggy debate over definitions, which has a tendency to trap academics in a kind of “paralysis by analysis.” Instead, he believes that smart cities are better served by not having a clear and possibly confining label.

Sadowski’s soft-spoken, friendly demeanor and frequent smiles obscure a bit of a bold streak. He has chosen to pre-publish his dissertation, “Selling Smartness: Visions and Politics of the Smart City” (working title), online, one chapter at time. While the strategy is not totally unprecedented, it is certainly somewhat daring, as it exposes the work before it has been academically reviewed. Sadowski’s confidence has proven justified, however. An article he wrote for First Monday, “Spectrum of Control: a Social Theory of the Smart City” was derived from his dissertation and was well received while the chapters he’s shared have led directly to an invitation to a workshop on programmable cities at Maynooth University in Ireland in September 2016.

Sadowski’s research reconceptualizes the city as a system of many different systems. He does not simply look at how communicable devices can be used to fulfill public services but at the ideology involved in that technology: How is it being developed? For whom and according to whose vision of the future? Who will have access to these innovations and who will control them? Sadowski seems to favor the widest access possible, as he is writing his dissertation with the intent of it one day becoming a trade book that can be digested by the general public.

Regarding SFIS, Sadowski is grateful to be working in an environment that allows him to be “intellectually promiscuous.” Much of what he’s been able to accomplish stems from “the ability to carve out my own area of expertise, specialty, my own way of approaching these things while having resources to help.” His advisor, Cynthia Selin, provided the nudge that shifted his academic interest from information technology to the future of cities and SFIS director Dave Guston had an influential role in how Sadowski came to think about the governance and politics of emerging technologies.

In the hallways at SFIS, Sadowski has become known for his skill and productivity as a writer. Sadowski is characteristically modest and practical about the praise. “Treat it like a job,” he advises. “Don’t wait for inspiration … You’ll find enjoyment sometimes and sometimes it will be slogging. You’ll be moving toward something even if it doesn’t feel like it.” Recognizing writing as a valuable craft to hone, he started early, working closely with an editor while an intern with Slate.

Sadowski expects to be finished with his dissertation during the summer of 2016. He currently has applications under review for both post-doctoral and assistant professor positions, though he is keeping his mind open to think tank and fellowship opportunities. Wherever he ends up, it will be somewhere he can continue his research and focus on writing for both academic and public audiences.